Rick Perry faces barriers on road to redemption


In moving toward an almost certain re-entry into presidential politics, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his strategists have confronted lagging poll numbers, potential fall-out from a felony indictment and memories of his disastrous 2012 race. Now there’s another complication: Ted Cruz.

Perry, who appears to be just weeks away from pulling on the trigger on a presidential run for 2016, now faces a formidable adversary from his own home state after Cruz, the junior U.S. senator from Texas, announced his candidacy last week to become the first official entry into next year’s presidential battle.

Cruz, a Tea Party hero who upended former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to become U.S. Senator more than two years ago, made his announcement to coincide with an appearance at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Cruz’ decision to effectively launch his campaign at a Christian school founded by fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell seemed aimed at reaching out to evangelical Christians, a constituency that Perry has also courted.

Political junkies in Texas delight at the prospect of a presidential field that includes two high profile Texans. Perry’s chief strategist, Jeff Miller, said Perry called Cruz on the day he announced to “wish him well” but, if Perry runs, the good will could evaporate quickly in the heat of a presidential battle, particularly if both candidates are still standing by the time of the March 1 Texas primary.

Unlike previous years, the early placement of the Texas contest on the national primary schedule gives Texas Republicans a strong voice in deciding their party’s nominee. The Lone Star primary, which will be held along with contests in six other states, will determine who gets the lion’s share of Texas’ 155 Republican delegates. Candidates who are still viable after the opening rounds in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and several other states, will undoubtedly descend on Texas to compete for its bounty of delegates and an energizing shot of momentum heading into the rest of the calendar.

“I think that every candidate who is wise who is still running for president will be in Texas before March 1,” said Texas Republican Chairman Tom Mechler.

The lineup of prospective GOP candidates features two other politicians with Texas ties – Midland-born Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who would get strong boost from the Texas-based Bush clan, including his son, Land Commissioner George P. Bush; and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the son of former Texas Congressman Ron Paul and a former student at Baylor University.

But the presence of Cruz and Perry in the presidential race would pit two big-name Texas political figures, matching Perry’s stature as a 14-year governor who styles himself as the architect of Texas’ economic “miracle” against Cruz’ phenomenal rise over the last six years to become the state’s junior senator and one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of the Obama administration.

Since becoming senator, Cruz has eclipsed Perry in Texas polls, strengthened by hefty support among Tea Party-style conservative activists who make up a large share of Texas Republican primary voters and by Perry’s apparent slip in popularity after his gaffe-scarred presidential run in 2012.

Cruz won 43.4 percent to top a presidential straw poll among delegates at the Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth in July while Perry came in fourth with 11.7 percent, behind Michigan neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Paul.

The latest Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll in February shows that Cruz, who was then an unannounced contender, still led the field in Texas with 20 percent but was essentially in a statistical tie with ground-gaining Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who had 19 percent. Bush and Carson had 9 percent and Perry had 8 percent.

Polls outside of Texas in advance of the senator’s announcement showed Cruz and Perry bunched closer together, in single digits toward the rear of the pack. The RealClear Politics average measuring the Republican horse race from January 15 through March 15 showed Cruz at 4.6 percent and Perry one notch behind at 3 percent. An RCP average for South Carolina in February showed Perry with 3.5 percent and Cruz at the back of the pack with 2 percent. Cruz was slightly ahead in polls for Iowa and New Hampshire.

Perry, who raised more than $100 million as governor, has built an extensive fundraising network outside of Texas and recently named nearly 80 major donors to his advisory committee for RickPAC, the political action committee that would serve as a springboard to a presidential launch. The committee encompasses some the biggest names in Republican fundraising, including San Antonio billionaire Red McCombs, former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. and Hank Greenberg, former chief executive of AIG.

The Cruz camp has also announced a blue-ribbon lineup of hosts for a fundraising reception for the new presidential candidate in Houston on Tuesday. The dignitaries, many of whom were major fund-raisers for Cruz during his Senate race, include Houston heart surgeon Divinder Bhatia and his wife Gina, philantrophist Windi Grimes, and Houston energy executive Stephen Cox, who was a leading bundler for Cruz.

Although Perry was among the first Texas political leaders to embrace the rise of the Tea Party, many Tea Party activists have since flocked behind Cruz and helped propel him to victory in his upstart challenge against Dewhurst in the 2012 GOP run-off. State Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville, one of the few Texas candidates to win an endorsement from Cruz in her victorious race for Tarrant County’s Senate District 10 last year, repaid the favor by quickly endorsing Cruz after he announced for president.

JoAnn Fleming of Tyler, a Texas Tea Party leader who is executive director of Grassroots America, says many Tea Party followers who originally supported the former governor now have “Perry fatigue,” in part of because of his support of in-state tuition of illegal immigrants, a position that hurt him among conservative activists during his initial run for the White House in 2012.

But Perry fares well within another powerful conservative constituency – anti-abortion advocates. Kyleen Wright of Mansfield, president of Texans for Life, said the former governor’s support of major anti-abortion legislation, including a 2013 measure that tightened restrictions on abortions, has earned lasting him support from members of her group and allied organizations. “I don’t know of any pro-life groups that wouldn’t feel extreme loyalty to him,” she said.

Cruz’s speech at Liberty University signaled his intentions to target evangelicals, a powerful bloc among Republican voters, but Perry, too, has also embraced the religious right. Perry, who attends an evangelical mega-church in Austin, invited thousands of Christians to a rally at Reliant Stadium in Houston a week before he launch his 2012 presidential race, delivering a 13-minute address that was more like a sermon than a speech.

Perry vaulted to the top of the polls shortly after entering the race but foundered in debate appearances and was forced to drop out. He has since attributed the flame-out to poor preparations and a rushed entry into the race, vowing not to repeat the same mistakes as he moves toward another try.

A revamped team of strategists has spent months laying the groundwork for a potential campaign from a command post at an undisclosed location in Austin, and Perry operatives are in place in the early battleground states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Perry, who left the governor’s office on Jan. 20, has traveled extensively throughout key states, engaged in national television interviews and delivered energetic speeches at must-attend political forums, including the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

He left the door open to a second presidential run the day he withdrew from the South Carolina primary in 2012 and has said repeatedly that he will formally announce a decision in May or June.

A ‘likeable guy’

Perry operatives wave off the polls as virtually meaningless at this stage of the political season race, saying the former governor, if he chooses to run, is on track to wage a competitive and successful re-entry into presidential politics, strengthened by his record as governor and more than a year of preparations to overcome the miscues of 2012.

Analysts agree that Perry faces formidable challenges in reconstructing his political persona the second time around but say he also has his strengths. “When people know you, they know your beauty marks as well as your warts,” says Iowa pollster Ann Selzer of Des Moines. “So he has a few of both.”

Selzer said that while the data finds Perry as “a very likeable guy” among voters, many Iowans are also saying, “not for president right now.

“He has to make his case and you can see he’s obviously transforming himself to give the appearance of (being) more presidential,” she said, adding that Perry, during his Iowa visits, has been speaking on topics “to showcase his experience and knowledge beyond the state of Texas.”

As he moves toward a formal decision, Perry is still shadowed by an unresolved legal battle over an indictment handed down while he was still governor. The Republican governor was charged with abuse of power for threatening to veto funding for the public integrity unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office Rosemary Lehmburg after she was arrest for drunken driving. Perry has said he acted within his constitutional rights by ultimately carrying out the veto threat.

Perry’s 2016 team

The 65-year-old governor has slightly retooled his image, adopting the now-trademark pair of black-rimmed glasses, and brought in new leadership to prepare for Round Two. At the helm as chief strategist is Miller, a 41-year-old former consultant from California who has been a friend of Perry’s for nearly a decade after they met through the Republican Governor’s Association.

Miller headed the governor’s California operations during his 2012 race and later became the “driving force” behind Perry’s political rehabilitation, The Texas Tribune reported in August, citing sources within the Perry network. Other members of the team include Perry veterans Rob Johnson, who managed the 2012 campaign, and Margaret Lauderback, the finance director from 2012, and Republican pollster Greg Strimple, who was brought aboard as a RickPAC senior adviser.

Interviewed at a Starbucks that he said was near Perry’s headquarters (the Perry team declines to give its exact location or permit visits from the press), Miller broadly outlined the team’s strategy. “Listen, if he decides to run, he’ll be prepared in every facet, whether that’s with infrastructure in the states or in the ability to raise money or on foreign policy, domestic policy, and a serious plan that he’s put together and is familiar with,” said Miller.

The strategist said it would cost between $50 to $100 million to mount a winning campaign in the Republican primaries. “There is no doubt in my mind that if the governor decided to run, he’ll raise enough money to win the nomination,” he said. He also predicted that the former governor would “absolutely” win the Texas primary if he enters the race.

The springboard for Perry’s potential candidacy is RickPAC, the political action committee created with the mission of electing conservatives who share Perry’s views on securing the border, cutting taxes, reducing wasteful government spending and creating jobs.

One RickPAC video captures Perry speaking at the CPAC conference and making the rounds among voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Perry reminds voters that he grew up “on a dry land cotton farm” in the West Texas community of Paint Creek – a message that could resonate with farmers in Iowa. Perry also underscores his military service as a U.S Air Force pilot, making him the only candidate who has “worn the uniform of this country,” with the exception of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a former judge advocate in the Air Force who is also considering a presidential bid.

Ray Sullivan, who served as Perry’s communications director during the 2012 race and is now co-chairman of a Perry super-PAC, the Opportunity and Freedom PAC, said one major difference between then and now is that Perry no longer holds his demanding full-time job as governor. That gives him far more time and freedom to prepare, develop policy, build an organization, and raise money.

“He has excellent feeling and perspective for what it takes to mount a successful campaign,” said Sullivan, noting that Republican candidates of the past, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, waged unsuccessful bids for the nomination before ultimately winning the presidency in subsequent campaign. “It is an incredibly daunting effort to run for president and the only way to be really be prepared is to have done it at least once.”